Kate Smith’s Special Song

As most baseball fans know, since the events of September 11, 2001, a lot of games now feature the singing of “God Bless America” at the 7th inning break. I was watching a game on TV the other day, and as the music was performed I began thinking about the origins of the song itself — and its most memorable performer.

The song came together from various earlier influences that culminated in Irving Berlin’s final version, which debuted in 1938. The legendary composer was a self-taught pianist who could not read or write music, but that wasn’t unusual in those days and there were plenty of people around who could kstranscribe musical creations to paper. As a Jewish-American immigrant, Berlin was very aware of the rising storm in Europe as Nazi Germany flexed its muscles, and he wanted to draw attention to that while celebrating America. (Ironically, the Siberian-born Berlin —  whose real name was Israel Baline — had much earlier taken as his surname the name of the largest city in Germany.)

Kate Smith was already a popular singer at that time, and she had sold a lot of records. One of her biggest was “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” the theme song from her radio show. It was considered her trademark song — both then and on her later TV show — but she would also become known for singing the song Irving Berlin asked her to debut. (Video below.)

She continued to have a strong career for the next couple of decades, appearing in many venues and selling a lot of records — not only of her two most famous songs, but also a wide variety of pop and show tunes.  She specialized in inspirational songs like “Climb Every Mountain,” but one of my favorites was her rendition of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” a piece that almost sounds as if it has German roots but is actually Yiddish.

Kate Smith died in 1986 and Irving Berlin died in 1989 (at age 101), but the song they teamed up on is still going strong. Although it has had its detractors — Woody Guthrie hated it and offered instead “This Land Is Your Land” — most Americans still enjoy hearing “God Bless America.”

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6 thoughts on “Kate Smith’s Special Song

  1. I don’t know if you’re aware of the “Playing for Change” videos. If not then check them out on YouTube. They are great.

    One of the musicians featured on them is “Grandpa Elliot” a street musician in New Orleans who has become quite popular. Recently he sang Kate Smith’s favorite song at a Dodger’s game. You can see it on this link:

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  2. Kate Smith was an interesting study in herself–a triumph of class and professionalism at a time when, frankly, people who looked like her were not supposed to succeed. I’m sure you remember the cruel saw from the bad old days, both for their misogyny and their racism: “suppose you’re on a desert island, and you can choose a black woman or a white woman to be there with you. The white woman is Kate Smith; the black woman is Lena Horne,” It was supposed to be the ultimate insult to Kate Smith and a grudging acknowledgment of Horne’s desirability, regardless of her color, and especially compared to Smith.

    I cringe as I write this and only do so to suggest how very far we’ve come, and how much Kate Smith was loved and respected “in spite of” a lot of meaningless stuff. We are a better people today.

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  3. It’s easy to see your heart’s in the right place, Ralph. As I was researching this piece, I came across info that I could have included but had the same kind of mixed feelings.

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  4. Late in her career, Kate Smith became sort of an icon with the Philadelphia Flyers NHL hockey team.

    Since mid-way through the 1969-70 season, the Flyers had gone almost undefeated at home in games where they played Kate’s recording of “God Bless America” before a game, in lieu of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

    In the spring of 1974, Philadelphia was locked in a fierce battle for the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, led by their all-time All-Star Bobby Hull. Game 6 was in Philly and the Flyers held a 3-2 lead in the Finals. There was no question about whether it would be “God Bless America” or the National Anthem that opened the game.

    Philly had a surprise for the Bruins, though. The lights dimmed, a carpet was rolled out and Kate Smith, herself, walked out to a quickly placed microphone and sang her majestic tune, live. The whole place erupted. Philadelphia fans sounded as if they were already celebrating the championship victory.

    As Kate ended the song, the ever-classy Bobby Orr, in an attempt to defuse the magic, skated into the circle of the spotlight, greeted Kate warmly and shook her hand.

    Didn’t work, sadly, since I was a big-time Bobby Orr, hence a Bruins, fan. the Flyers, aptly nicknamed The Broad Street Bullies, closed out the series and took the 1974 Stanley Cup.

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  5. Ummm… shoot me! That second paragraph should read ” …their all-time All-Star bobby Orr. Oh my Gosh! What a boner. I love Bobby Orr. Always have, and always will. Bobby Hull was a good hockey player, an All-Star, too. But there was only one Bobby Orr.

    Man! An old brain is a tough thing to work with.

    Sorry for the momentary scare, Bruins fans. Kind of blew a pretty good post.

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